In Conversation with Leslie Askew
This is a story about the birth of an artist. It’s a story bucking the art establishment in favor of listening to your inner voice. Status quo says only certain types of media creators are artists. The status quo here in the United States feeds on the idea that resources are scarce.
Swimming in this soup, creatives compete for the attention and dollar of gatekeepers. But what happens if we wake up and see alternatives? What happens when we build our systems and technique from a place of collaboration? When it comes to something as sacred and personal as art and creativity, how do we break from the establishment to nurture it? Leslie Askew did just that. She IS doing that, every day. It’s a life-long practice. This episode is about her unique creative process. It’s a window into her philosophy and how the art of storytelling has taken her from CNN to independent documentary film.
To hear more about why you should consider your creative purpose and why certain stories are close to your heart, listen below.
Leslie talks about the transformative power of documentary film. Before cameras even roll, storytellers and subjects enter a sacred agreement, where they agree to listen to one another. As a producer, she feels humbled and privileged to be welcomed in someone’s home to interview them. Being interviewed is a brave act, and the vulnerability is not lost on Leslie. This magic is then transported on to the viewer.
Leslie’s attraction to human rights and social justice is rooted in her lived experience as an African-American raised within a historically racist system. Her career as a television producer and independent filmmaker blossom from a deep childhood desire to resolve conflict:
“Documentary film is transformative. One of our basic needs is to be heard and to tell people who we are. As a producer, being allowed into someone’s home and listening to them in an interview, is a tremendous privilege. I get chills every time. You’re participating in this kind of magic between two people. My job is to translate that.”
Listening and Process
So much of Leslie’s work is about sharing other people’s stories, be it Aboriginal people from Australia or the documentary series CNN Heroes. When I ask how she trains her ear to listen, she talks about planning enough, so that you can let go and be present in an interview. When she lets go, she can follow the subject word by word all the way through with deeper questions. Because she takes the time to think about them and care for them, she creates a safe space to share and empathize.
Leslie describes in great detail how she prepares for interviews. We track her process from discovering an idea for a story, researching it and putting it to the test, to scripting and going into the field. Listening is central to the whole thing:
“Listen to your childhood self. Societally, we’re taught to not listen to what we wanted to do. But that’s basically the only difference between me and other people. I never stopped listening to my childhood self. Anytime I falter, I go back to my journals or I think, ‘Okay, Leslie, what did you want? When you were eleven, writing poetry, what were you talking about?’ I was talking about protesting and the Klu Klux Klan and how I wanted to destroy them. So this is all that matters. Never losing sight of who I was at eleven has never served me wrong because that’s when you have the most clarity.”
Leslie Askew is an award-winning television producer. She’s worked for major networks in Australia, Europe, and the United States, including National Geographic, Al Jazeera, CBS, BET, PBS, History Channel and CNN where she was a producer on the documentary series CNN Heroes. She is based in The Netherlands. Find her at askewpictures.com